Lab Plastics and a Circular Economy

Lisa McMillan – School of Applied Sciences, Edinburgh Napier University

HE Sector Biological Science research labs generate an estimated 5.5 million tonnes of plastic waste annually. If we consider Industry and the NHS, volumes of such contaminated plastics enter further orders of magnitude.

Globally, the most common approach to disposal of lab plastics is incineration. Just imagine what a difference it could make to the environment if these plastics could instead be safely recycled and made part of a circular economy? My colleague Jo Brown and I are determined to further contribute to making this goal a reality.

 During 2019 – following consultation with Napier’s waste contractor Enva and development of a decontamination process – we began recycling the plastics generated in our labs. This pioneering and innovative recycling initiative has to date re-routed 3.5 tonnes of plastic from general waste to dry mixed recycling; the scope and extent of the project is, to our knowledge, unique.

 Sharing our work quickly became a key aspect of the initiative. Our first presentation to a technicians’ conference at Queens University Belfast in 2020 gave a first glimpse of what we had tapped into. We received an overwhelming response from others keen to make change in their own labs. In house since then, associated improvements to lab sustainability are now a key feature of the university’s progress towards meeting net zero obligations. Having led on Napier signing up to The Laboratory Efficiency Assessment Framework (LEAF), it’s great to see our labs recently achieving 6 awards and demonstrating savings of £6,900 and 11 tonnes of CO2! The work has even influencedthe institutions waste contract tender process, ensuring future continuity of the recycling.

 Interest has continued to grow and to date we estimate to have had the privilege of communicating the work to more than 300 organisations. To be asked to share the work at such prestigious events as the Royal Society of Biology’s 2022 Accreditation Conference and with key organisations such as the Institute for Cancer Research is so encouraging. Vitally, we continue to share and exchange best practice with many institutions and the ripple effect of positive change is a real motivator.

 The potential for change that this work represents is feeding a paradigm shift across the HE sector and beyond, leading many to question long established norms of lab waste disposal.  

This significant opportunity for change has been recognised by the THE Times Higher Education Awards 2023 with a shortlisting in the Outstanding Contribution to Environmental Leadership category.

If that all sounds positive it is (!), but here’s the thing. Since we began sharing our work the question most asked, unsurprisingly is ‘how do you decontaminate the plastics’. People really want to know the fine detail in terms of trying to replicate in their own labs. Despite an obvious appetite for change, progress elsewhere has been slow. One key reason for this is validation; people want to see our sterility proven.

It’s no longer about what we do and how we do it, rather it’s about proving the efficacy of what we do.

To this end the Institute of Science and Technology are kindly supporting development of this next phase of work, this support is hugely appreciated. This will facilitate some fundamental groundwork and the subsequent publication, by peer review of our validation processes.

This is only a beginning but, being able to validate our sterility process will be a game changer. It will provide a crucial piece of the jigsaw that will showcase these plastics (recall the quantities mentioned above!) to be a safe potential alternative to virgin resources in downstream manufacturing processes. This in turn can help influence relevant future health and safety policies, recycling policies and infrastructure, necessary markets etc.

Until now, contaminated lab plastics and circular economies have rarely been part of the same conversation.  We may have been quoted ‘accidental pioneers’ in lab plastic recycling but the time is coming where through our efforts we can truly begin to move this conversation on.